Are you ready for the workplace revolution?
When the corporatete stakes are so high, it’s not clear how far we will go to win in the office.. Nor how much pressure we will facece to pop some pills to get the edgee on our colleagues
FOR many, the morning coffee ritual has little to do with thirst or taste, but the need to start the day at full pace. It is as much a pick-me-up for employees as a productivity tool for the boss.
But what if we could do better than caffeine? What if we could harness the best that science and medicine has to offer the human brain, condensing all these powerful ingredients into a pill to make you perform at an even higher level than normal? If these smart drugs worked, and were readily available, would you use them? Would your colleagues and rivals also use smart drugs, and would bosses end up expecting them to be swallowed with that morning coffee?
The allure of smart drugs has long been the stuff of fantasy. It is sensationalised by Hollywood, most notably in the 2011 film Limitless, where Bradley Cooper plays an underperforming author who uses a drug called NZT to achieve extraordinary success. In last year’s blockbuster Lucy, a drug mule played by Scarlett Johansson inadvertently consumes something called CPH4 that gives her superhuman powers. But with film fantasy comes consumer demand. The movie drugs might not be available yet, but an increasing number of people have found their smart drugs in a variety of places.
At one end of the scale, there are strong pharmaceuticals intended for those with learning difficulties, memory problems or sleep issues, but illegally diverted to those wanting to enhance their powers of concentration and memory recall. At the other end, there are vitamins, minerals and plant extracts (turmeric, anyone?) sold as brain tonics – a light touch, heavily promoted – while in between there are any number of supplements and synthetics, many sold online without the regulatory controls and safeguards applied to other products.
Professor Pankaj Sah, from the Queensland Brain Institute and Science of Learning Research Centre, believes people are looking to fast track their educational development or find a shortcut to success. No one knows how many people are taking smart drugs because they seem to be doing it in secret.
“I don’t know the statistics in Australia but we had a Science of Learning meeting in Brisbane and some of the teachers there were saying they had seen it,” Sah says. “There is a huge appetite now for anything that will improve learning, anything that will help you over the line. It’s a market in which there’s money to be made and a lot of these compounds are not outlawed, and it’s not illegal to use them, and if someone can make money out of them, they will.”
Drugs have always featured in high-pressure environments, whether it is stockbrokers snorting cocaine or truck drivers using speed to stay awake. Yet smart drugs appeal to the mainstream. Pharmaceuticals appear the most sought after, with healthy people popping these pills with no information on correct dosage or side effects (nor, it seems, any concern).
Last year, almost 600,000 scripts were filled in Australia for methylphenidate (commonly known as Ritalin) which is used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and rumoured to provide a brain boost for healthy people. Another ADHD drug, dexamphetamine, has a similar reputation and was dispensed about 250,000 times last year, while 300,000 scripts were filled for the memory-enhancing dementia drug Donepezil. These drugs are being dispensed in greater numbers but the level of misuse is hard to gauge, given the legitimate use by an ageing population and a greater awareness of learning disorders.
Then there are a whole host of substances found online. Two years ago, one online store advised customers that Australian authorities had forced them to stop selling half a dozen supposed cognitive enhancement drugs, marketed as nootropics. The level of outrage that followed provides some indication of how dependent some customers had become. “That’s a total joke. I can’t believe this, like serious,” was the first Facebook comment, as customers debated how they might circumvent the laws. Another comment: “We must be the most overregulated country on earth. What an embarrassment.” Another online store insures customers against the risk of authorities seizing their parcels, stating that “Australia has some weird laws with importing nootropics or substances”. Ironically, most seizures involve people importing products in a bid to enhance their appearance or sex drive.
The president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, Mal Hopwood, says people who dabble in smart drugs need to know they are at risk of psychosis or, in certain circumstances, death. “We know there is a diversion process that does occur (for pharmaceuticals) but people are also now able to purchase almost anything they want online,” he says. “The people selling these drugs online make often grand claims about their capacity to be of benefit, far in excess of what we know to be supported by evidence.”
Like many new trends and emerging issues, Australia looks overseas to see how it has played out, which in the case of smart drugs leads to the United States. Between five and 35 per cent of US university students have experimented with smart drugs, depending on how the survey has been framed. The perception that a quarter of students routinely use smart drugs inevitably makes new students inclined to follow suit. It also raises the prospect of graduates taking their habits into the workplace.
In Australia, the evidence is either incomplete or anecdotal. And any attempt to quantify smart-drug use sparks more complex debates about safety, medical, regulatory and ethical issues. Dr Jason Mazanov from the University of NSW conducted a survey a few years ago and found 8.5 per cent of university students had used smart drugs at some point. “I work on drugs in sport mostly, and one of the things that concerns me is that we sensationalise performance-enhancing drug use in sport. We exceptionalise it and stigmatise it, but is performance-enhancing drug use being normalised in society?”
Another academic, University of Sydney psychologist Vince Cakic, has made similar comparisons with sport, questioning whether smart drugs could ever be regulated. “The argument that these drugs should be banned for non-medical use because they confer unfair advantage is rather like suggesting private tuition be banned,” he said. “These drugs might even level the playing field for those who have been disadvantaged.”
Medical experts insist the overriding consideration in controlling the availability of pharmaceuticals and other substances is safety. Monash University ethicist Professor Michael Selgelid knows that to be the case, but wonders whether the fast pace of society, and pressure to compete, has left the safety debate behind. “If there’s even a perception that they’re effective, or they really are effective, people are going to want to use them – even if they’re risky,” Selgelid says.
Business futurist Morris Miselowski believes smart drugs are used by two distinct age groups: younger people who want high-risk, high-reward jobs and older people desperate to keep them. “One is to get in and the other is to stay in,” he says. Yet he maintains technology is transforming workplaces more than smart drugs ever could. Search engines and digitisation, for example, are reducing demand on human memory, while robots and automation free workers for other tasks. In the future, he believes people will be required for unique talents such as wisdom – and that won’t come in pill form.
Nonetheless, people keep turning to drugs to make their body and brain do more than is possible. The Australian Defence Force had to change its rules on the use of certain sleeping tablets because some pilots flying night missions in the Middle East were becoming addicted. Concert pianist Simon Tedeschi has spoken of medications called beta blockers being used by concert musicians to calm their nerves. Shift workers routinely use stimulants and sedatives to alter their body clocks. None of this involves people using the drugs strictly as intended, but it still goes on.
Certain pharmaceuticals have been nicknamed “brain viagra” and part of the realm of “cosmetic neurosurgery” but it is wrong to assume they’re only sought for cognitive enhancement. The National Drug Research Institute monitors ecstasy users and last year found 77 per cent took illicit pharmaceuticals as well, often dexamphetamine prescribed to someone else. Research associate Marina Nelson says this use of smart drugs appears to be on the rise but no one knows how common it is or what it entails.
In the US, some experts believe uni students use smart drugs simply to maintain a hectic social life while studying. In those circumstances, are the drugs being used to overcome cognitive impairment rather than seek cognitive enhancement?
Queensland University of Technology researcher Charmaine Jensen is looking at what students use, and suspects smart drugs may be isolated to certain fields, such as medicine or law, or confined to certain peer groups. Coffee is still the most popular performance tool, she says, while an encouraging number of students recognise the need for exercise and healthy eating. Some of the feedback she has received about smart drugs was unexpected. “I had one student tell me that they started using smart drugs for other things around the house, just to get the house clean, or do whatever else they needed to get done and out of the way in order to study,” Jensen says.
Hopwood maintains there has not been enough clinical research to determine the safety, and efficacy, of smart-drug use among healthy people. “There’s no substitute for a good balance of rest, work and play. If you are relying upon artificial means to try to maintain that balance it won’t work for an extended period,” he says.
Cambridge University neuroscientist Professor Barbara Sahakian has been monitoring the rise of smart drugs for years. Recently, she declared a pressing need for more research on the impact these drugs have on healthy people so authorities might finally control them.
But herein lies the dilemma: medical research is rightly focused on helping the ill or impaired, so the possible impact of pharmaceuticals on healthy people is not a priority. Without clear evidence of health and safety concerns, some misuse will continue. Any research that seems to validate or encourage the use of smart drugs would inevitably raise regulatory and ethical questions that are much harder to answer.
“Some people might think consenting, informed adults make their own choices whether to use such drugs,” Selgelid says. “But with the competition we have in our society, all these demands, the problem is that the choices might not actually be free even if they’re informed. It’s not completely voluntary if people feel under pressure to do something. If it starts with smart drugs where does it end?”
“There is a huge appetite now for anything that will improve learning, anything that will help you over the line.” Pankaj Sah, Queensland Brain Institute